India had been on my radar for such a long time, that in my imagination it had to be on everybody’s ultimate bucket list. I thought it would be overrun by travelers from all over the world and I thought it would be super touristy all the way through. Oh, what a mistake.

When I recently went there for a rather spontaneous girlfriend getaway with my oldest and best friend from Vienna, I was quite surprised to realize, that, no, India is certainly not on everybody’s radar, and even iconic places like the Taj Mahal do not overflow with groups of international tourists. Media reports on the one hand, ‘easier’ popular destinations in Asia on the other keep many people away from India, especially women. I have already shared my two cents on tips for women traveling to India with you, and now it’s time to talk about one of the most touristy areas that India has to boast: the Golden Triangle.

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Despite its incredible size and variety of cultures, landscapes and religions, most people who do travel to India for a short-term holiday go to the same place: the desert state, Rajasthan and home of the Taj Mahal, Uttar Pradesh. Together the cities of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra boast some of the top sights of the area and form the ‘Golden Triangle’. It is a very popular tourist trail and although I’m usually one for off-the-beaten path itineraries, I still have to admit: visiting places like the Amer Fort or Taj Mahal belong to the absolute highlights on my time in India. And if you are only just a little bit into architecture as well, you should not miss to pay a visit to the Golden Triangle yourself.

Love or hate: Delhi

Let’s start in Delhi; the massive, chaotic, exciting Delhi. It seems like this city is one you either love or hate, but to be honest, without spending a lot of quality time here, it was hard to make up my mind. Yes, it is loud, dirty and the traffic is sheer scary; but it also boasts amazing urban landscapes, has great parks and trendy neighborhoods with rooftop bars and studio spaces. Although I had a few hours to explore the city before the first nightfall, I couldn’t convince myself to dive into the big city chaos right on my first day. More keen on experiencing the local life, I made my way to the neighborhood temple around the corner from my hotel, was greeted by groups of happy of locals and strolled up and down the surrounding streets. The only piece of advice I got from the reception was ‘don’t go outside the gate’; the gate, which was just down the road, keeping unwanted people and vehicles out of the guarded compound.

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Delhi is organised in communities, usually from a couple up to many, many streets and blocks rounded up in so-called villages. Once inside, it feels like pretty normal street life (just without the sheer anarchy of Delhi traffic), not like really like the rich gated communities I knew from Central America. And yet, yes, Delhi can be a dangerous city – like any other city that has several million inhabitants you need to know which areas are safe to flash around your camera or to walk after night. Don’t do either of this in Delhi if you’re not sure about the neighborhood, and ask hotel staff for advice. Having said all that – I did not experience a single situation during the day or after dark in which I felt uncomfortable on the streets of Delhi. You see, it’s not as bad as the media makes it sound.

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Where to Stay in Delhi

With a city as big as Delhi is is almost impossible to gain an overview of all the hotels and the neighborhoods that they are in. During our trip to India, we tried three boutique hotels in different areas of Delhi and each came with their own advantages:

Shanti Home, West Delhi: Shanti Home is great as an on-arrival option, because transfer from the airport only takes about half an hour – and every minute less in Delhi traffic counts. You are being welcomed with a necklace of fresh and aromatic flowers, a cup of iced jasmine tea and of course a colorful Bindi on your forehead. There are only 17 rooms, all individually themed (we stayed in the Bollywood room decorated with set lamps and film posters) and located across 3 levels. The top floor of the hotel is reserved for its roof-top restaurant and bar (one of the few hotels I stayed at in India, where you could have an alcoholic drink) with a beautiful view over the neighborhood. There is also a yoga room, a wellness treatment area and several lounges with libraries, a TV and boardgames for a lazy first evening in Delhi.

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The Manor, Friend‘s Colony: The Manor was the perfect place for us to return to after our Golden Circle tour, when we were in need of a tranquil place the most. It is located in a high-end gated village, among big villas and lush green gardens. Its interior blends the best of European and Indian style – if you need a moment to catch your breath and overcome the culture shock of the first few days, this is the place to go. It’s pricy, but totally worth it! In the hotel’s restaurant Indian Accent we ate some of the most interesting food on our trip (go for fish with coconut barley!) and had a complimentary 15-minute head or foot massage at the Zehen wellness centre. The dream!

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Scarlette, Safdarjung Enclave: Finally my favorite, the Scarlette. It’s a tiny hotel, not the easiest to find in the maze of small lanes surrounding it, but once you enter the lobby you could think you are in somebody’s living room. The reception is a desk out of a co-working’s space dream, the walls are filled with beautiful vintage photographs and modern prints, the embroidered pillows along the window bench are inviting to lounge and the tables are bursting with French interior and design magazines (the owners are French). For our final day in Delhi we had decided to explore the trendy Hauz Khas village, and this hotel was the ideal starting point for this.

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Right on the beaten track: the Taj Mahal

If it wasn’t for my best friend, who is an architecture student, I would not even have considered making my way to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. But alas, seeing that we were already doing Central India, she said, it would be a shame not to go. And oh, how right she was: the Taj Mahal is purely amazing! Some places are tourist magnets for a reason…

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Our driver hat organized a guide to take us around, and it was actually nice to have somebody to a) ask questions about the construction of Taj Mahal, b) someone to take photos of us (if you want a souvenir photo like that) and c) to look after us. We arrived at the gates roughly at 6.10am, 10 minutes after they opened and after a quick security check (make sure you don’t carry any gum with you as it’s not allowed) we were in. No cue, no crowds, just us and a few groups of mainly domestic tourists. I’m sure you’re all aware of the love story behind the Taj Mahal, so I’m not going to bore you with that, but let me rather tell you, that the monument is so much bigger and more impressive than you could ever imagine – you will be blown away. We spent about 2 hours walking around the gardens, taking wagonloads of photos (our guide LOVED my camera) and of course inside of the mausoleum.

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Where to stay in Agra

While travel guides will try to convince you that there is more to Agra than the iconic mausoleum (and I’m sure there is) we, like most other travelers, only stayed here for one night. Accommodation in the city caters to all budgets and needs, but if you want to safe some rupees while still being incredibly close to the Taj Mahal gates, you should opt for the hostel Zostel where a private room will only cost you from 350 rupees per room (roughly £3,50) and a dorm bed comes even cheaper. Zostel operates several backpacker’s hostels in India which attract many, well, backpackers. Most people we met here were on long-term journeys through Asia, told stories about all the places they had been so far and left colorful paintings on the common room’s walls. All rooms are in the main building (the management is currently renovating the neighboring house to enlarge their women’s only area and hope to re-purpose their roof-top terrace), and the common room is actually a low cube in the garden, with massive glass windows, lounge corners and a WiFi router. Breakfast and ‘traveller-friendly’ (not spicy) dinner are served right there. From the hostel it’s a two minute drive to the Taj Mahal ticket office (by rickshaw or tuktuk) from where an e-train will take you to the actual gates – outside traffic is not permitted here. Of course you can also walk all the way.

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Indulge in chaos: Jaipur

I feel in love with Rajasthan’s capital Jaipur when I saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel(I know, I know…), but unfortunately films are hardly ever resembling reality, and in the case of Jaipur that meant instead of calm markets where you can haggle for fabrics like Judi Dench, we found chaotic traffic, touristy markets selling low-quality wares and pushy rickshaw and tuktuk drivers. And still, I think you should go there. In the central area, Pink City, you can walk around by yourself – it’s worth peeking into the smaller roads and lanes off the four main roads – and see highlights such as the Hawa Mahal and meet the locals on the markets, or (and I would highly recommend considering this – I would do it next time) take part in a guided walk with a local. We were honestly a little overwhelmed on our own…

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A must do, which was recommended to me by a good friend who used to live in Delhi, is a visit to the Raj Mandir cinema; a cinema which looks like out of a Wes Anderson film (no wonder, Anderson made The Darjeeling Express). The tickets are super cheap, the films are in Hindi without subtitles and you will potentially be the only non-Indian person in there (most people seemed to be domestic tourists though, not locals). Luckily popular Bollywood films are rarely hard to get even without understanding the words. There are three screenings of the same film each day (noon-3pm, 3-6pm, 6-9pm), including a 15-minute intermission to get a hot samosa or some popcorn at the snack stand in the foyer.

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On our way out of town, we stopped by Jaipur’s top landmark monument, the Amer Fort (also called Amber Fort or Amer Palace). Our driver took us all the way up the hill to the gates, but you can also walk up along the zig-zagging walls (or ride the elephants, but in the name of animal protection: please don’t ride the elephants). If you are into architecture, interior design and #Ihavethisthingwithfloors, you will love it here! Top tip: if you want to send postcards or get fridge magnets, buy them here at the shop near the exit – no where else did I find the same variety and quality.

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Where to stay in Jaipur

I’m risking to repeat myself, but: in a country like India, where everything is so full-on, I think it’s essential to stay somewhere you feel 100% comfortable, and where you can find some piece of mind. In busy Jaipur we found such a place in Dera Mandawa, a small boutique hotel with just nine suites located in two buildings framing a beautiful garden. Although located right next to a massive road, it’s backyard setting makes for a quiet and calm atmosphere (in our room we didn’t hear the road at all, just the call for morning prayers from the nearby mosque). The hotel has been run by Mr. Singh and his family for decades, and like a cool padre he told us the story of his great-grandfather, introduced us to his son and granddaughter and explained the rules of merels. Compared to the busy streets of Jaipur, this was a place of true peace.

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What next?

In addition to the three cities that form the Golden Triangle, many people decide to branch out a little and see at least one other city in Rajasthan. Many are drawn to Udaipur, Jodhpur or Jaisalmer, but we decided for two days in Pushkar, one of India’s three holy cities. More on that later.

You see, following a tourist trail around the Golden Triangle is not just a necessary evil, it is a great experience of encounters with people, architecture and culture. Even if they might be the most photographed and most visited sights in India, places like the Taj Mahal, Amer Fort or the Pink City are totally worth a visit!

Check out our other posts on India, our featured destination this month:

India

Many thanks to Tripzuki to supporting our trip with hotels in Delhi and Jaipur
and to Zostel for hosting us in Agra.